What Is Spiritual Formation?

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God periodically moves upon his people and in their surrounding culture to achieve his everlasting purposes for that tiny stretch of cosmic time we call “human history.” This usually happens in ways that no one but he could have planned or foreseen and in ways that lie far beyond our control or comprehension.

We discover, usually after the fact, that a pervasive and powerful shift has occurred. It may happen to the individual, to the group, or to an entire culture. Old ways of doing things cease to be effective, though they may have been very powerful in the past. There arises a very real danger that we will set ourselves in opposition to what God truly is doing now and aims to do in the future. Often we miss the opportunity to act with God in the now. We fail to find, quickly enough, new wineskins for the new wine.

Such a new move of God was what happened in the emergence of the Hebrew people from Egypt “when the time was right” and again in their entry into and emergence from Babylonian exile. Again, we see it in the emergence of a “Christian” people within Jewish culture, and then the emergence of a nonethnic “body of Christ” from the Jewish church.

Since then, the pervasive and powerful movement of God has happened again and again during the sojourn of Christ in his people on the earth: the overwhelming of classical paganism, the emergence of the monastic form of Christian devotion, the Cistercian, Franciscan, and Devotio Moderna transformations within monasticism, the Protestant Reformation, Pietism, Wesleyan and American revivalism, and many other such movements of less historical effect, such as the twentieth-century charismatic countercultural upsurges (Jesus People and so on). The rise and outworkings of such movements are clearly the result of God’s hand in our midst.

And God is still moving. The quest for spiritual formation (really, as indicated, spiritual transformation) is in fact an age-old and worldwide one. It is rooted in the deep personal and even biological need for goodness that haunts humanity. It has taken many forms and has now resurfaced at the beginning of the twenty-first century to meet our present situation. This is, I am sure, part of an incoming tide of God’s life that would lift our lives today for our voyage into eternity. Our hearts cry out, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.”[i]

So this quest, currently so deeply felt, is at once new and very old, both very promising and full of danger, illuminative of our lacks and failures and bursting with grace, an expression of the eternal quest of God for man and of man’s ineradicable need for God. This contemporary quest for spiritual formation is essential to the life of God in his people as they presently move toward the fulfillment of his purposes for today and beyond.

Viewed sociologically and historically, as well as spiritually, the new impulse is an aspect of the dissolution of Protestant denominationalism as we have known it and of the emergence of a new—but also an old—identity for Christians: crossing all denominational lines and national and natural boundaries.

It is now generally recognized that the question “Am I a Christian?” can no longer be answered in any significant manner by citing denominational, ethnic, or national names or symbols. There are now 33,800 different Christian denominations on earth.[ii] Clearly, an adequate answer must go deeper than our religious associations. It must refer to what we are in our hearts—before God, in the depths of our being, always the focal point of Christian spiritual formation.

Such an answer has always been required “before God.” Who can deny it? But that has not always been recognized and given adequate emphasis among us—especially not in the recent past—although we are increasingly doing so today. This change is an extremely good thing and a highly promising departure from the recent past of Christians worldwide.

We can say, in a preliminary manner, that spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.[iii] In what follows we must carefully examine what this means for today. But we can say at the outset that, in the degree to which spiritual formation in Christ is successful, the outer life of the individual becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus.

Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Its goal is an obedience or conformity to Christ that arises out of an inner transformation accomplished through purposive interaction with the grace of God in Christ. Obedience is an essential outcome of Christian spiritual formation (John 13:34-35; 14:21).

External manifestation of “Christlikeness” is not, however, the focus of the process; and when it is made the main emphasis, the process will certainly be defeated, falling into deadening legalisms and pointless parochialism. That is what has happened so often in the past, and this fact is a major barrier to wholeheartedly embracing Christian spiritual formation in the present. We know now that peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization just are not the point.

“Externalism,” as we might call it, was even a danger in New Testament times. But “that Christ be formed within you” is the eternal watchword of Christian spiritual formation (Galatians 4:19, par). This word is fortified by the deep moral and spiritual insight that, while “the letter of the law kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6, par).

To illustrate briefly, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) refer to various wrong behaviors: acting out anger, looking to lust, heartless divorce, verbal manipulation, returning evil for evil, and so forth.[iv] But, as abundant experience teaches, to strive merely to act in conformity with his expressions of what living in the kingdom of God from the heart is like is to attempt the impossible. It will also lead to doing things that are obviously wrong and even ridiculous—such as self-castration as a presumed act of devotion to Christ, which unfortunately has repeatedly occurred in Christian history.

The “outward” interpretation of spiritual formation, emphasizing specific acts as it does, will merely increase “the ‘righteousness’ of the scribe and Pharisee.” It will not, as we must, “go beyond it” (Matthew 5:20, par) to achieve genuine transformation of who I am through and through—Christ’s man or woman, living richly in his kingdom.

The instrumentalities of Christian spiritual formation therefore involve much more than human effort and actions under our control. Well-informed human effort certainly is indispensable, for spiritual formation is no passive process. But Christlikeness of the inner being is not a human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace.

Though we must act, the resources for spiritual formation extend far beyond the human. They come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ. They also come from the spiritual treasures—people, events, traditions, teachings—stored in the body of Christ’s people on earth, past and present.

[i] “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” African American spiritual, first published in Frederick J. Work, Folk Songs of the American Negro (Nashville, 1907), public domain.

[ii] According to Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Changing Face of the Church,” Newsweek, April 16, 2001,49. The irony is that each one of the 33,800 groups is “right.” The Center for the Study of Global Christianity reports 45,000 denominations worldwide as of 2019: https://www.gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/research/quick-facts/.

[iii] Although we do not intend a scholarly treatment in this book, it may be helpful to compare such statements as this about spiritual formation and spirituality to some other authors; for example, Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Saints (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), especially pages 18–19, and Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1971), especially pages 16–17. Understanding of many deep problems concerning spirituality and spiritual formation can be gained by comparing these and other authors with what I say in this book.

[iv] Please see my book The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), chapter 5, for a more detailed explanation of Jesus’ teachings on these and related matters.

Dallas Willard

was instrumental in developing the Evangelical Christian movement toward spiritual formation in Christ. He was a professor and director for the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for most of his life. At the same time, he had a vibrant ministry of writing, teaching, and giving informal spiritual direction to pastors and leaders. He was the bestselling author of more than thirty publications, including The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of Disciplines, and Hearing God.

renovation of the heart

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